"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, September 21, 2008

High Test Scores at KIPP Coupled with High Attrition Rates of Low Performers

A new study on Bay Area KIPP middle schools is out, and Washington Post education writer and full-time ed industry stooge, Jay Mathews, offered his assessment on Friday. He likes it, or at least he likes the parts that can be used to jack up his all-in bet on the KIPP testing boot camps as the solution to the impoverished minority achievement problem.

As corporate media mouthpiece for the union-busting privatizers, Mathews sets out to use this study to correct the critics of KIPP, as does, indeed, this "research" commissioned to study what does not constitute the chief criticism of KIPP at all. If the primary criticism of KIPP were limited, as Mathews seems to think, to those who accuse KIPP of "creaming the most successful students from high-poverty public schools" (p. vii), then this study might be seen as a success for the Hewlett Foundation, which paid for it. While Rothstein has demonstrated the creaming phenomenon to be a undisputed fact for the Baltimore area KIPP when compared to Baltimore publics, this is not at all the core critique against KIPP.

The more substantial criticism, and one not addressed by Mathews or his data suppliers at SRI, centers on the fact that the KIPP chain gangs, through their harsh regimens, punishing protocols, and lockstep methods and content, generate failure for low performers or those who are too far behind to keep up. These low-flying students, then, transfer out, as do those who have the audacity to question the punitive climate of enforced feel-good indoctrination). By Mathews's own admission, "60 percent of Bay Area fifth-graders entering KIPP in 2003 left before completing eighth grade, and they were usually low achievers." That, sir, is how the creaming occurs. Get it?? The KIPPsters' reputation for high test performance is based on non-survival of those unfit for KIPP Schools.

So when Mathews crows about KIPP school math and reading averages soaring for cohorts that complete four years at KIPP, he ignores the fact it is primarily the high-fliers who survive the full treatment. If public schools had the luxury or lack of conscience required to dump their low performers, public school averages would be much more impressive, too:
"Since 2001, middle school students who completed four years at KIPP increased their average math achievement level on average from the 40th to the 82nd percentile and their reading level from the 32nd to the 60th percentile -- gains not seen anywhere else."
And with almost half the school day spent on math and reading drill--a school day that runs from 7 to 5 (and Saturdays)--we might expect some significant gains by the survivors.

Student attrition, then, is a real problem, to say the least--but one that does nothing to dampen the heat of enthusiasm among those looking for a rigorous solution to the achievement burden. The idea of "scaling up" a system that leaves over half the students to give up may be an laudable model for folks like Don Fisher who "thinks that education is a business" and that a school is "not much different from a Gap store," but such a system would throw gasoline on the failure fire that is already consuming poor communities where hope has already been airlifted out. Consider this non-shocking, though certainly troubling, finding from the Report:
Together, the four schools began with a combined total of 312 fifth graders in 2003-04, and ended with 173 eighth graders in 2006-07 (see Exhibit 2-3). The number of eighth graders includes new students who entered KIPP after fifth grade (p.12).
That amounts to a 55% attrition rate, even when adding all the new enrollees during the three years. Imagine what the attrition rate might be if the "researchers" took a measure of the beginners vs. completers without the new recruits.

And who are the students most likely to stick with KIPP? The ones with higher test scores when they entered, of course. And who are the students who are leaving KIPP? You guessed it, the low performing students:
We found that students who remained at KIPP had higher incoming scores in both reading and mathematics than did their peers who entered KIPP in fifth grade but exited before completing the program (see Exhibit 2-5). We also considered the question from another perspective: Are students with lower scores more likely to exit KIPP? We used fall fifth-grade SAT10 scores to predict those exiting KIPP and found that the probability of a student’s leaving KIPP before completing eighth grade is higher for those with lower entering scores (pp. 15-16).
Jay Mathews never mentions these findings from the study but, rather, focuses on taking down the straw men that he hastily constructs, such as the tidbit from the study that points out that only three students were expelled during a 3-year period for disciplinary reasons. Who, indeed, needs to expel when you can eliminate the chaff by other, less visible means? Mathews's focus, then, on the big gains in test scores among the KIPP survivors only ignores the retail brutality of a system that treats children like dry goods that can be culled and sorted, sold, and sold out. Those goods that don't pass inspection? They are thrown back to the bargain bin or the trash can with all the other damaged goods.

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